Benedictus – Part 1 The Merciful God of History

The first part of the Benedictus is about: 

1 God working out the divine plan for the Messiah s coming, redeeming his people by fulfilling the promise of mercy made through the prophets and remembering “his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham.”

2 God as the one who fulfills the hopes and promises of the Old Testament, for the gift of salvation bound up in the coming of the Messiah.

The Song of Zechariah heralds the dawning of the light of Jesus on all who sit in darkness.

Once rendered mute on account of his doubt, the father of John is now the prophet who proclaims the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. His is a song of Advent, as we wait for the light that has already come and is still yet to come.

As a priest of the Jewish people, Zechariah praises God for rescuing them from their enemies so that they might “serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness” for the rest of their days.

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn[a] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73  the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.


Zechariah, now that his tongue is loosed, speaks under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (v. 67). Thus the narrator clearly wants the audience to accept the Benedictus as an authoritative statement of God’s plan for Israel. The Christian Jews in the audience, perhaps others also, would be sympathetic to this hope. At the same time, they would have the disturbing knowledge that the coming of John and Jesus did not save Israel from its enemies, for many Jews perished in the Roman war, and the temple now lies in ruins. Thus a tension appears in the narrative already at this early point. 

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

Luke evokes the Old Testament history of salvation as pointing to Jesus, just as Matthew does with his genealogy

Examples  Psalms 41:14 (13), Psalm 72:18, Psalm 106:48 (the endings of the three books of the psalter): “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel”

  • Psalm 111:9: “He sent redemption to His people
  • Judges 3:9: “And the Lord raised up a savior for Israel.”

Psalm 132:16-17: “I shall clothe her priests with salvation… I shall make a horn to sprout for David.

  • Ezekiel 29:21: “On that day I shall make a horn sprout for all the House of Israel”
  • I Samuel 2:10 (Hannah’s hymn): “He will exalt the horn of His anointed [Messiah]”
  • Psalm 18:3(2): “My God … the horn of my salvation.”

15th Benediction of the Shemoneh Esreh (Jewish prayer contemporary with Luke): “Let the shoot of David (Your Servant) speedily spring up and raise his horn in Your Salvation … May you be blessed, O Lord, who lets the horn of salvation flourish.”
69 “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us   in the house of his servant David”

Note –

  • First Strophe (68-71): reminds us that the messiah (the “horn of salvation”) from the House of David was foretold by the prophets (2 Samuel 7)
  • Second Strophe (71-73): reminds us that the messiah was a fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to Abraham

– salvation is for us from our enemies, from those who hate us.

– We should show mercy to our ancestors and  to remember hold covenant with Abraham.

– Goal to rescue us from the hand of our enemies to serve him without fear.

The description of the saving action of God, of the messiah (the “horn of salvation”), is entirely in Old Testament language

  • We don’t find the more sophisticated language describing “who Jesus is” (that is, “Christology”) that we find in the early hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2:6-11, speaking of Jesus’ origins, humble life as a servant, obedient death on a cross, and exaltation

The Prologue hymn in John 1:1-18, speaking of Jesus, the Logos or Word of God, coming into the world, rejected by his own, manifesting his glory.

  • The Canticles, describing “who Jesus is” (= Christology) in purely Old Testament language, are perhaps the oldest preserved Christian hymns of praise.

This  is  weaving together of thoughts  Genesis, the Psalms, Isaiah and Malachi. It shows a spirituality of people steeped in the Scriptures and drawing together strands of promise and expectation. It sweeps backwards: from the present, to the long tradition of the prophets, the election of the house and dynasty of David, to the covenant ratified under Moses, and first announced to Abraham. And now the promises find their fulfillment. It is but fitting, therefore, for us to refer to it as a thanksgiving for the fulfillment of God’s promises.

The progression of thought in the Benedictus shows, however, that the true end of God’s redemption is not merely deliverance from political domination — as important as that is — but the creation of conditions in which God’s people can worship and serve God without fear. As Albert Schweitzer perceptively observes [The Good News According to Luke, p. 43]: “The ultimate purpose of God’s salvation presupposes deliverance from the enemy but is in fact undisturbed worship.” Deliverance makes worship in peace — unhindered worship — possible. [p. 59]

The canticle gives the reader the first sure sense of what “liberation” means for Luke. It is defined in specifically “religious” rather than political terms. Negatively defined, freedom means release from the power of enemies. But its positive content is worship and holiness of life. Thus John’s role in preparing the people for “restoration” involves the forgiveness of sins rather than the rallying of troops. Likewise the Messiah’s role is not one of violent revolt but rather of leading the people “in the path of peace.” [Schweizer, p. 48]

When Zechariah was praying inside the most holy place in the temple, it seems very unlikely that at such a moment he would have prayed for a private concern like reversing his childlessness state. Rather, he would have prayed, like all faithful Jews at that time, for the coming of the Messiah—it would have been foremost in his mind. Likewise, in the first part of his song he recalls hundreds of years of God s sovereign work in history, beginning with Abraham and moving through the prophets to his own day.

Zechariah is reminding us that God is a God of history. Perhaps this is why Luke introduces his “life of Christ” with such extraordinary detail, including the names of rulers and their respective territories. He is emphasizing that God is involved in history; that God is actively accomplishing his ultimate purposes in this world—past, present, and future. Throughout the Advent season, the church’s lectionary readings focus on the  last things, the second coming of Christ, the future. And this theme relates to the concept of the providence of God that can be seen throughout the Scriptures. Often referred to as “general providence,” it connotes an element of “divine prearrangement” in the sometimes seemingly random events of human history.

This is certainly one of the greatest of divine mysteries. God is not just the God of the universe, but also of the affairs of this world: within countries, governments, and popular movements.

While Zechariah is singing specifically about the people of Israel and God s activity in their history, his words could make sense to any people or country. And if God is about divine ultimate purposes, it means God often moves in unrecognized events and processes.

It is as if history is both planned and unplanned at the same time. However one looks at it, Zechariah s song means that God is about his purposes everywhere, even in the present day Middle East. God is busy accomplishing his purposes in all places, regardless of whether they are visible or tangible to us.

Mercy

Zechariah sings not only about God at work and in control of all things at all times, but he also praises an overwhelmingly comforting dimension of God. He sings about a God who has come to “show mercy.

Throughout Luke’s infancy narrative mercy is the prominent theme. Mercy is the determinant of God s purposes in history. All of Gods actions are governed by this overriding dimension of mercy. This is the heart of the Jewish people’s story as told in the Scriptures. Before the close of the Old Testament period, prior to the beginning of the “silent years,” despite enduring one form of rebellion by the children of Israel after another, we see God’s mercy prevailing.

In the early church’s Christmas tradition, mercy is regarded as the gift of the Incarnation, with Christ’s coming among us viewed essentially as the fullest demonstration of the mercy of God.

All of this corresponds beautifully with Zechariah’s agreement to name his son John, which is derived from Jobanan, meaning “God is gracious.”

Throughout Luke, the theme of promise/fulfillment repeats itself. This theme begins in chapter one with the promises spoken by the angel to Zechariah and their fulfillment in our text, in spite of the couple’s old age, Elizabeth’s barrenness, and the pressure of the crowd to give a child a different name. God’s purposes happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *